Wake Up!

Designing ourselves out of an emergency

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It is late January and a group of Nobel Laureates, UN officials and members of The Elders (a group of international leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007) gather together to discuss the movement of time. This particular time is the representation of how close our planet is getting to its complete annihilation. Since 1947 the Doomsday Clock has been tracking our species’ progress towards (and away from) certain destruction, set at midnight. This week the minute hand was moved to 100 seconds away from midnight, the closest it has been to doomsday since it began ticking. And the causes for this? Nuclear proliferation, cyber-based disinformation (fake news) and our failure to tackle climate change. But it came, not with a cry of despair but with a call for urgent action: “If ever there was a time to wake up, it is now.”

You may already be awake and part of the growing movement, anxious about the environment and global situations; wildfires, massive floods, freak weather. This unprecedented moment—a climate emergency where citizens around the world are taking their concerns on to the streets to demand global action—is helping to galvanise some leaders but what else can be done? It feels like the small individual responses such as reducing flying, meat-eating or car-driving can feel tiny in response to the call from the UN IPCC to stop runaway global temperatures. Yes, we need to change the way we live. But more than that we need to address our global consumption habits.

As a designer, I have spent over a decade researching the beginning and the end of the life of our stuff and I have seen the growing impact of it all.

Things are spiralling out of control and our love of stuff is intrinsically linked to current environmental crises around the world.

Our accelerating “business-as-usual” behaviours of fast and furious consumption followed by obsolescence and replacement demands a large and steady stream of resources. Such global trends see huge supply chains that are fed vast quantities of raw materials extracted from the earth that feed the machines and factories. Our cheap goods are then often shipped and assembled in multiple places around the world before settling in a warehouse and waiting to be bought. In 2017 the global resource use breached 100 billion tonnes, but our recycling rates are worse than ever.

And what of the link to design? You might have already made the connection between what you do in your studio and what is happening in the world. Being a designer at the start of this new decade is, on the surface pretty good. Design has risen up in importance, becoming more recognised, with growing markets and a profitable sector. There are 1.7 million people working in the UK design sector, bringing in the equivalent of 7% of its GVA. There are whole new spreads of materials to play with, new processes to push, different opportunities to explore—life is all looking quite rosy. But we definitely have a role in the cycle of stuff that crowds our lives.

The Great Recovery, redesigning the future taking into account climate change
The Great Recovery, redesigning the future. Image Thomas.Matthews

Through the calls to action and alarm bells ringing all around us we must—as a sector—acknowledge our role and find new ways to help make change. Start by asking yourselves these questions:

  1. Are you aware how you specify materials?

Do you understand the impact of manufacturing leather, steel, paper, concrete, ceramics—the ingredients for design? Do you know how to do a full life-cycle analysis from cradle to grave? For the best part we ask for sustainability creds from the material supplier and take them as red. But they can be full of ambiguities and general terms like recyclable or biodegradable. Be more questioning and scrutinise the answers.

  1. Can you learn to design for circularity?

The circular economy as a concept has been around for a while and is finally making traction in the design world. This way of designing, with its focus on optimising resource use through reuse, leasing, recovering and harvesting is in harmony with climate change reduction. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, in collaboration with Material Economics, set out the compelling climate-change reasons to shift from a “take, make, waste” extractive economy that is so reliant on fossil fuels to one that is circular, restorative and resilient. Focus on renewable energy will address 55% of the global carbon emissions. The remaining 45% comes from the production of all those things we consume every day, and these cannot be overlooked.

  1. What is your sphere of influence?

The design sector is predominantly a service industry. We take a brief for a client and respond. Around 80% of the environmental impact is embedded into a product at its concept design stage, so design is crucial to solving environmental challenges. We need to know what we are specifying and what the use-life is: we should be asking where will it end up when it is no longer wanted. How can the materials get back into being resources again? This knowledge can help influence clients and customers if we design and communicate them well.

Dealing with climate change will be the most important thing a designer will do and by ignoring or dismissing it will make you a polluter. Be brave and maybe design can pull back the hands of time.

Main image: Drill teardown analysis. Photo © The Great Recovery

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